The Nexus Network ‘Domestic Nexus’ project examined the dynamics of consumption at the domestic scale. The project was run by Matt Watson, Peter Jackson and Liz Sharp from University of Sheffield with Dale Southerton, David Evans, Alan Ward and Ali Browne from the University of Manchester.
The project set out to explore how the framing of ‘the nexus’ make a difference to understanding practices of resource consumption in the home; and in turn to consider what difference understandings of home consumption practices can make to tackling the nexus. Our motivation sprang from recognition that most engagement with the nexus to date has focused on the supply side of water, energy and food.
We contended that:
- The dynamics of consumption are fundamental to a holistic understanding of the nexus, as the systems of supply and distribution through which resource flows are ultimately rooted in demand for services and products
- The nexus of food, water and energy are as apparent at the domestic scale as anywhere else, being where systems of provision are brought together in the accomplishment of practices such as cooking or showering
- There exists abundant existing knowledge around the consumption of water, food and energy in relation to the dynamics of practices and their consequences for resource demand.
The team ran a series of workshops to explore these issues:
What is the value of ‘the nexus’ concept?
On the one hand there were points of deep scepticism about ‘the Nexus’, including that
- The nexus is not a concept, an idea, or a distinctive way of thinking. Rather it is an observation of the fairly obvious fact that a certain bunch of fundamental resources are interlinked and interdependent, interlinkages that are often ignored within certain spheres of research and policy. Such observations of interdependencies are not ‘new’ from the perspective of critical social sciences – particularly those disciplines that address complexity and interdependence, assemblages, collectivises etc.
- The nexus is a new label for the old bottle of sustainability. This critique centres on what the concept of the Nexus restricts – that is while it highlights interdependencies in a way that appeals to technocratic management approaches – such a framing of environmental and resource interdependencies moves the debates quite far away from the social. That is, there a risk is that when applied as a conceptual framework ‘The Nexus’ potentially moves debate of environmental sustainability still further away from issues of power and politics, class and gender, and so on.
- The nexus may have some valence in the social sciences only because it was recognised as a potential pragmatic vehicle for demonstrating relevance – and accessing bits of funding streams – for better resources spheres of the physical and environmental sciences
Beyond these obvious critiques, there were also a number of positive evaluations:
- The emphasis on interdependencies in the nexus should be seen as complementary to the emphases in social theory on complexity, heterogeneity, interdependencies and interconnections. Such complementarity potentially makes research and policy on the nexus a vehicle both for new ideas and new routes of engagement with different debates across the environmental and social sciences, and related policy areas.
- A lot of research in terms of practices and everyday home resource consumption is domain specific. Within the social sciences more generally, a nexus framing enables different insights to emerge beyond these existing domains of research, for example potentially enabling more joined up studies across the Water Energy Food domains.
- ‘The nexus’ is generative in pushing analysis in different directions (by searching for particular forms of inter-relation for example) and in bringing ideas and debates together in new ways.
- ‘The Nexus’ has the potential to thicken and deepen social scientific analysis, and to potentially enable a deeper engagement of critical social theory with broader debates related to sustainability and resource use
- It opens and maintains spaces for conversation and collaboration across academic disciplines and beyond academia.
How can a practice approach to ‘the domestic nexus’ engage with policy?
The partnership project brought together an impressive range of knowledge and direct experience of engagement with policy actors. This included both the core project team, who were able to share experience in meetings as well as in the workshops; but also many of the participants in the workshop, including academics, consultants and researchers within policy institutions.
This is indicative of the small but growing interest in practice research from policy organisations, as they look for approaches additional to the orthodoxy of individualistic behaviouralist understandings to address the scale of social and infrastructural sustainability challenges facing societies and cities. Awareness of practice theory and/or of key names in the field (including members of the team and their close colleagues) were significant in the recruitment of several workshop participants from policy organisations.
Despite this valence of our approach, it was challenging to recruit participants from beyond the academy. But the difficulty of getting policy actors to attend meant that even the final, policy oriented workshop had a large majority of academics amongst the participants. A number of issues are at stake here:
- People working in ministries or national regulatory bodies are time pressured and held to account for how they spend their time. While we sought to draw out the policy relevance of our work, the necessarily exploratory and collaboration based approach of the workshops meant they were what might be considered ‘risky’ as a time commitment, as the output is not clear from the start.
- The Nexus concept has limited impact in policy spheres. Many of the policy people in our workshops had not come across the concept of the WEF Nexus before receiving our invitation. Moreover, there was some suggestion of resistance to tackling the scale of interdependency signalled by the nexus when there is enough difficulty integrating policy adequately without that framing.
Read the full report
You can download the full report here DomesticNexusReport_webv
The workshops were recorded with summaries, slides and images at nexusathome.wordpress.com and on twitter with #nexusathome
See more on the ‘Domestic Nexus’ project website.